In a resplendent catering hall in Astoria, Queens late last week, sat 14 possible futures for New Yorkers to access LaGuardia Airport.
Separated by a near-constantly congested highway, and shut off from only the most glacial of transit connections, LaGuardia, a suddenly sleek and attractive airport alongside the Flushing Bay, has long been an object of fascination for those seeking to go to the airport without suffering nervous breakdowns about missing their flights.
After Governor Kathy Hochul canceled a much-derided, but nearly shovel-ready plan to connect an AirTrain to LaGuardia from Willets Point, the Port Authority held two public comment sessions this month to hear what the residents of western Queens feel about possible transit options to LaGuardia.
Proposals include an AirTrain along the Grand Central Parkway or the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway; an extension of the N subway line from Astoria; a ferry service from lower Manhattan; and a dedicated bus lane from Jackson Heights, among others. None of the ideas preclude the others, and all operate along different construction timelines, explained the Port Authority’s Hersh Parekh, director of government and community relations for New York.
“There’s near universal consensus that mass transit access to LaGuardia Airport has to be improved, the question remains what is the best way to do it,” Parekh said. “There are some cases in which multiple options can be advanced, some more short-term than others. The goal is to improve mass transit access and get cars off the road around LaGuardia Airport.”
Some projects could improve the situation immediately, like a dedicated bus lane from Jackson Heights or Manhattan, while other longer-term construction projects go through the approval and building process. A group of transit advocacy groups prefer extending bus or subway routes to the airport, offering their opinion to the governor in a letter last week.
The study of the alternative options is being led by a panel of three transit exports, including former Bloomberg administration transportation commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan.
This wouldn’t be the first time a proposed transit connection was shot down late in the planning stages, just to have planners go back to the drawing board. A subway connection was scrapped in 2003, even after $645 million had been set aside for it in the MTA budget.
“I had a meeting with all the businesses in the area back then, and I said, if they build a train connection, you’re all going to go out of business,” said George Delis, who was a community board manager in Astoria at the time, and attended Thursday’s event. “Eleven years of construction, how would they survive?”
Delis is in favor of the “fixed guideway with light rail” option, which would run along the Grand Central Parkway. To Delis, the reasoning is clear. “A light rail down the Grand Central Parkway from Astoria Boulevard. Very simple. 1.2 miles. Every twenty minutes,” he explained. “The whole system is connected, and it’s all state-owned property. No condemnations.”
Delis registered his opinions with a group of transcribers at the back of the ballroom, who were taking public comments from among the 75 people who attended the event.
Going from rendering to rendering in the mirror-laden ballroom, Kalipha Anderson was adamant there was only one option.
“The only one that makes sense is the train from 30th street straight from LaGuardia,” said Anderson. “You want to get to LaGuardia fast. We wouldn’t be here if the buses worked. Chicago has it, why can’t we have it?”
Anderson traveled to the event from Far Rockaway. But he’s familiar with the area after his family lived in a hotel near LaGuardia Airport in the months following superstorm Sandy.
“I was here before the Q70 came and after, I’ve taken the M60 before, it was impossible to get here from elsewhere in Queens,” he said.
At each of the renderings of connections stood a consultant from a variety of firms contracted into exploring the project, explaining the pluses and minuses of each design idea.
For instance, any rail connection approaching from the west would have to dig below ground on approach to LaGuardia, to avoid cutting off LaGuardia’s north-south runway. Any rail approach from the Astoria Boulevard subway station would have to somehow navigate the Hell Gate Trestle, either towering above the rail line or lowering the Grand Central to provide clearance below.
Dedicated bus lanes would need take away a lane of traffic, on an already congested parkway (although that would be alleviated somewhat, with the reduced traffic from an effective bus lane).
A rail option from Jackson Heights would include a possible connection to Hochul’s other signature transit project — the Interborough Express.
The obstacles for each, and the possible strains it would put on local communities, is what drives Larinda Hooks, the president of the East Elmhurst-Corona Civic Association, to prefer Governor Andrew Cuomo’s AirTrain plan, the AirTrain from Willets Point that would cost $2.1 billion. She worries bus options would take away parking spots.
“The original plan is still the best plan,” Hooks said. “If you look at all the options, it’s the only one that doesn’t go near anybody’s house. It doesn’t go into anyone’s community. Won’t be issues with taking away parking spots, taking away a lane so there’s the most traffic. It makes the most sense for homeowners or renters or people who just live in the community.”
Hooks also supports the ferry option, which would connect East Elmhurst to Manhattan — something another bayside but transit-starved area, Soundview in the Bronx — received last year.
The Port Authority has not yet announced when it will begin the next phase of the study, or when options will be whittled down. Until then, LaGuardia, while aesthetically improved, will remain behind a wall of traffic.